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The Cool-Down Lap: How Penske Pulled the Block on Ganassi’s Historic Double

Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have been rival car owners for years, with many of their battles fought in various open-wheel series, most recently the IZOD IndyCar Series. But the explosion of NASCAR’s popularity the last two decades of the 20th century brought both racing legends to stock car racing, where they started new chapters in their storied careers. Penske opened an operation in 1991, while Ganassi bought Felix Sabates’s team before the 2001 season. Both have seen varied success and their share of high and lows in NASCAR. However, 2010 has been a banner year in both types of racing for the two racing titans, showcased by a history-making Sunday in auto racing where both took center stage for 1,100 miles.

Just a couple of hours before the green flag flew for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Chip Ganassi was drinking milk in victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with his driver Dario Franchitti, who led 155 laps en route to his second Borg-Warner trophy. His other driver, Scott Dixon, finished fifth. The commentators on the Indy 500 telecast mentioned Ganassi’s chance at capturing history, if one of his two NASCAR entries could then win the Coca-Cola 600; but the notion seemed far-fetched, as his cars were starting 20th and 27th.

Well if history were to happen, Ganassi wanted to witness it in person. After completing media obligations at the Brickyard, Ganassi hopped a plane to Charlotte and arrived at the track before the Coke 600’s midpoint. But by that time, Juan Pablo Montoya had torn up the No. 42 Target Chevy, gone to the garage and been rendered out of contention. It was only appropriate that left the No. 1 and Jamie McMurray as Ganassi’s only shot at pulling the sweep.

McMurray’s late-race heroics in claiming victory in the Daytona 500 had already made another part of history possible for Ganassi. That win, combined with Franchitti’s, marked the first time that an owner won both races in the same year. Ganassi – 1. Penske – 0, and now, he was going for a 2-0 lead.

Ganassi’s Charlotte arrival energized McMurray, as the Missouri driver immediately picked up his lap times. You can relate if you have a boss you like to work for. If he or she is standing in the room, you suddenly feel the urge to work harder, prove your importance, and gain their praise. McMurray, an emotional guy, congratulated his boss on the team radio and then got out his Bass Pro Shops fishing gear and started reeling in the night’s star… Penske driver Kurt Busch.

Busch had dominated the Coca-Cola 600, claiming the lead from polesitter Ryan Newman on lap 11, then holding the point for the vast majority of the race. But as night settled in, McMurray emerged as the only other driver who could keep in step with the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. McMurray finally caught and passed Busch for the lead just prior to the second-to-last round of pit stops on lap 299, then pulled away from the winner of last week’s All-Star Race… until Marcos Ambrose’s crash brought out the night’s final caution with less than 25 laps to go.

The No. 1 team then lost two spots in the pits, giving the lead back to Busch in a track position switch that would ultimately prove the difference. The No. 2 car ran far superior lap times to the No. 1 in the opening laps of race runs through the night, and did just that on the race’s final green flag run. With around 10 laps to go, McMurray started clicking off better lap times than Busch, chipping away at his 1.1-second lead. But time ran out, and Busch completed the All-Star/Coca-Cola 600 sweep by taking the checkered flag Sunday night over McMurray by a .737-second margin. Ganassi – 1, Penske – 1.

With the Nos. 2 and 1 finishing 1-2, Penske and Ganassi etched another facet in their long rivalry that has transcended several racing series and many drivers. The best part about this fierce competition, though, is there were no hard feelings when it’s over – only respect. McMurray snuck into Busch’s Miller Lite beer bath in victory lane to pour some Coca-Cola down the back of Kurt’s driver’s suit and congratulate him. Ganassi also went out of his way to show class, congratulating his rival Penske in post-race interviews after the event by calling him “good buddy.” He also jumped on the radio and told McMurray after the checkered flag, “Too bad these cars don’t have push to pass,” making a reference to the new turbo-boost feature recently implemented in the IndyCar Series.

“The two individuals in the car and the two individuals owning the cars have a lot of respect for each other,” said Kurt Busch after the win. “To do it for Roger, to beat Ganassi, that’s what it’s all about.”

Meanwhile, McMurray’s third runner-up finish of the year propels him to 15th in the points, just 26 markers out of the coveted 12th and final Chase-qualifying position. After some bum luck and torn up equipment in the races immediately following his season-opening win, McMurray now has the No. 1 team in prime position to make a run for the Chase in a stretch of races where it faltered at the same goal with Martin Truex Jr. the past two seasons. If McMurray indeed accomplishes the feat, he could very well be primed to square off with Busch and write another chapter in the Penske-Ganassi showdown.

Who will have the last and biggest belly laugh then? At some point along the line, someone’s going to have to break the tie.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

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